IRELAND'S POET : 'Such Friends: The Work of W.B. Yeats'

By Cahill, Elizabeth Kirkland | Commonweal, August 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

IRELAND'S POET : 'Such Friends: The Work of W.B. Yeats'


Cahill, Elizabeth Kirkland, Commonweal


Such Friends: The Work of W.B. Yeats," on view through September 11 at the New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street), considers this greatest of Irish poets by way of his many professional and personal relationships. While such an indirect approach may take the exhibition beyond the reach of the uninitiated, to those who already know and love Yeats, there is much to learn. Within the library's muted marble exhibition hall are gathered 250 books, manuscripts, drawings, and photographs that illuminate both the context and the subtext of Yeats's poetry: his Irish ancestry, his work in the Abbey Theater, his role in the Irish literary renaissance, his fascination with the occult, his many friendships and loves. The exhibition takes its title from the oft-quoted final couplet of "The Municipal Gallery Revisited": "Think where man's glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends."

This is a homegrown exhibition, most of its materials drawn from the library's Berg Collection of English and American literature, specifically the papers of the Irish writer and patriot Lady Augusta Gregory, who was a lifelong close friend of Yeats. Not every poet or artist of the twentieth century could support an exhibition based on his or her circle of friends and family, but in this case, the concept is sound. Yeats's private and public lives interpenetrate like the cone-shaped gyres that figure in some of his poems. He drew the themes and images for his poetry from the welter of his experiences with such friends as Maud Gonne, John O'Leary, Olivia Shakespeare, Ezra Pound, J.M. Synge, John Quinn, Lady Gregory, and his father, the painter John Butler Yeats. Accordingly, around nearly every corner in the exhibition, the visitor encounters a familiar face.

The initial sections deal with Yeats's family and early influences. Born in 1865 in Dublin, son of a "brilliant but impractical painter," grandson and great-grandson of rectors of the Church of Ireland, from an early age Willie imbibed myths and fairy tales of the Irish countryside during summers spent at his maternal grandparents' home at Sligo. While the mantle of Irishness he assumed as a young poet surely drew on this early exposure, it was in truth a more calculated decision, arising in part from his association with the political leader John O'Leary, another early influence.

Each section uses a variety of materials to illustrate the breadth of Yeats's engagement with both ideas and people throughout his life. In a letter to O'Leary, the young poet defends his interest in magic and the occult: "The mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write....I have always considered my self a voice of what I beleive [sic] to be a greater renaisance [sic]-the revolt of the soul against the intellect-now begining [sic] in the world." (So inconsistent was Yeats's spelling that the curator has placed explanatory notes about it throughout the gallery.) Many of the friends Yeats would celebrate in his poetry are introduced early on: the beautiful Irish patriot Maud Gonne (to whom Yeats proposed five times, unsuccessfully), the loyal and steadfast Lady Gregory, and John Quinn, an Irish-American lawyer and arts patron who was a friend to the poet and his father.

One of my favorite sections details Yeats's work with the Abbey Theatre, which he, Edward Martyn, and Lady Gregory founded in 1904 to produce Irish plays on Irish soil. A small pamphlet titled "Abbey Theatre Endowment Fund" announces a drive to raise five thousand pounds for the theater, to keep it "vigorous, intellectual, and courageous for another half-dozen years." In amusing proximity is a letter from Yeats to the manager of an Abbey touring company: "The Abbey Company is as difficult to manage as a South American republic." (The Abbey was neither the first nor the last nonprofit to experience a disjunction between fund-raising rhetoric and front-line reality.

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